The Non Traditional Student

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This chapter reviews relevant studies and literature on the experiences of nontraditional students as they make their way towards the completion of their undergraduate degree. An overview of the characteristics of nontraditional students compared to traditional students is made. Furthermore, the barriers towards completion and the support systems needed are examined for nontraditional female students. Finally, theoretical and empirical literature on barriers experienced and the support systems helpful in overcoming barriers towards completion are presented.

The Non-Traditional Student in the 21st Century

While the higher education system is designed to reflect the needs and experiences of "traditional" students (Choy, 2002), the influx of "non-traditional" students has spurred adjustments within higher education (Bowl, 2011). College recruitments and operations still revolve around the traditional student as evidenced by Web pages, campus newspapers, admissions information, and even administrative hours (Hagedorn, 2005). Studies have even purported to the traditional path toward an undergraduate degree as "exception, rather than the rule" (Horn & Carroll, 1996, p. 14). Nonetheless, despite the fact that mature students aged 25 years old and above are now becoming a common sight in college and university campuses, their concerns are still not properly addressed by higher education institutions (Kilgore & Rice, 2003).

Studies focusing on the experiences and needs of adult learners and nontraditional students have been conducted since the early 1980s (Cross, 1981; Bean & Metzner, 1985). Despite the empirical attention the subject has gained, operational definitions used in the studies have varied considerably, hence, the lack of a consistent definition of the "nontraditional student" (Bowl, 2001). In the U.S. context, the Department of Education (2002) has defined the nontraditional student as having the following characteristics: 1) delayed enrollment, 2) part-time enrollment, 3) financial independence, 4) full-time employment while enrolled, 5) dependents, 6) single parent, and 7) high school graduation status. Further to this, Horn and Carroll (1996) placed the "nontraditional" definition along a continuum and suggested that those possessing one of the above-mentioned attributes are considered "minimally nontraditional"; those having two to three attributes are "moderately nontraditional"; and those having four or more attributes are considered "highly nontraditional". For this particular study, the group of interest is the "highly nontraditional group" particularly female, aged over 30 and below 61, with dependents, delayed enrollment in college, and employed full-time while pursuing a college degree.

Both quantitative and qualitative studies on nontraditional students have more or less painted a common picture of some of their experiences. For in

The picture presented by quantitative research is complemented by the insights provided by recent qualitative studies in which a variety of factors which seem to explored. Many writers refer to the extra commitments for which adult students have responsibility; for example, the logistics of running a family and managing family care arrangements, problems with access to library facilities and feelings of isolation often feel tensions between course and family commitments (Ashcroft and Peacock 1993). In addition, mature female students may experience particular problems when family members do not accept the personal growth that takes place as a result of and competing demands, the high level of commitment of mature students is often cited as a contributory factor to the good performance of these students (Powell, 1992; Bullough and Knowles, 1990).

Additionally, some older students come to higher education with a 'powerful personal history' of anxiety about a low school performance (Gardner and Pickering, 1991); mature students often feel they have not entered university by the normal way, but have come in through 'the back door', and consequently feel the need to prove themselves by doing as well as possible (Ashcroft and Peacock, 1993). Once adults have made the decision to enter higher education, they are faced with innumerable threats to their success. While traditional undergraduates are generally able to direct most of their energy toward their studies, older students, parents (especially single parents), and students who work full time have family and work responsibilities competing with school for their time, energy, and financial resources (Choy, 2002). Unlike their more traditional counterparts, nontraditional students often encounter

situational, dispositional, and institutional barriers to persistence with little or no support

services available to them from their school (Kilgore & Rice, 2003).

However, when preparation and life-skills are taken into account, traditional students seem to be less prepared for higher education. Many students' perceptions of higher education are skewed and based on stereotypical assumptions. These perceptions are typically based on their experiences in secondary education. Many believe that college will be moderately difficult academically, and extremely exciting socially (Laing 2005). Traditional students also perceive the teachers and learning environment at a higher education institution to be similar to their high school. This often results in "many students (due in part to their previous educational experiences) will have entered higher education without having taken responsibility for their own learning" (Laing 2005:170).

A study performed by Bowl (2001) "points to the need for institutional change if non-traditional students are to thrive within a system that purports to be directed toward widening participation" (p. 141). Bowl (2001) found that non-traditional students are frustrated with the lack of change and improvements that their respective higher education institutions are will to make. Entering into higher education, for non-traditional students can result in a feeling of powerlessness, as well as a "struggle for personal, academic, financial and emotional survival" (Bowl, 2001, p. 142).

The definition of a nontraditional student varies. This study utilized Horn's (1996) classification strata, which defined a nontraditional student as an individual who, at a minimum, possesses one of the following characteristics: (a) has delayed enrollment following high school graduation, (b) is a part-time student for at least a part of the academic year, (c) works 35 hours or more per week while enrolled, (d) is considered financially independent under financial aid qualification guidelines, and (e) is a de facto single parent. Horn (1996) delineated nontraditional status as minimally nontraditional (possesses only one characteristic), moderately nontraditional (possesses two or three characteristics), and highly nontraditional (possesses four or more). A traditional student was defined as one who, upon completing high school, immediately enrolled full-time in college, relied upon his or her parents for financial support, and did not usually work during the school year.

Barriers Experienced by Non-Traditional Students

Susan Weil (1986, 1989) examined the impact of informal learning on non-traditional

students' expectations and experiences of higher education entry. She described the disjunction

between the home and early schooling experiences of research participants and how this

disjunction may also be felt by those moving into higher education. According to her, entering

higher education can be a shock, accompanied by a sense of personal powerlessness. Evidence

from other research with non-traditional students, indicates that higher education is experienced

in different ways than by standard, 18 year-old entrants (Macdonald and Stratta, 1998; Pascall

and Cox, 1993). It is seen initially, at any rate, as a struggle for personal, academic, financial

and emotional survival.

Situational Barriers

Family, job, and finances all play a part in determining situational barriers. Household income, the number of dependents in the household, and the financial aid received by the students are all variables that determine the persistence rate of adult students (Carney-Crompton & Tan, 2002). Although other variables can be negotiated, income levels cannot. The basic needs of the family, like food and rent or mortgage, take a priority over educational expenditures. Time and energy spent trylng to make ends meet, for example, can drain the most dedicated student. Additionally, parents feel guilt about being unavailable when their children need them with mothers of children younger than thirteen feeling the most role conflict (Terrell, 1990). The age of the children may well determine the persistence of women; those with older children may persist to graduation, whereas women with younger child may interrupt or stop their education (Carney-Crompton & Tan, 2002). Both a blessing and a curse, employment may have a positive psychological effect on adults, but at the cost of most of their spare time. In addition, nontraditional students my have to make career compromises for the sake of both their families and their academic work (Terrell, 1990), leading to health and financial consequences.

Women are often laden with a disproportionate burden of household tasks and caregiver responsibilities (Carney-Crompton & Tan, 2002) when attending college. Managing multiple roles may be a source of stress for nontraditional female students. Parents may feel guilty about being unavailable when their children need them, with mothers of children under thirteen reporting the most conflict (Terrell, 1990). Women with older children may persist to graduation, whereas those with younger children may interrupt their education to fulfill family responsibilities (Carney-Crompton & Tan, 2002; Home, 1998).

Jacobs and King (2002) name several reasons why nontraditional females over age 25 are at-risk of leaving college before degree completion. The biggest risk for older students is part-time attendance. Nontraditional female students without children and attending college full-time have about the same chance of completing college as those in their early twenties. Jacobs and King believe that "older women, enrolled part time, who delayed entry into college, and who have become mothers are much less likely to complete their degrees" (p. 222).

Dispositional Barriers

Dispositional barriers are intrapersonal and, consequently, much harder to define. Full-time students report role overload, and student, family, and job demands all contribute to role contagion (Home, 1998). Many full-time students are unable to full anticipate the effects of their combined role demands. In contrast to jobs with fixed hours, student and family demands never seem to end. Increases in roles, demands, and time conflicts are associated with high stress, anxiety, and depression for adult female students (Carney-Crompton & Tan, 2002).

Because adult students may never find a cohort of similar students with whom they can connect socially or emotionally, support from family and friends is essential when adults are making the decision to stay in school or to drop out. Carney-Crompton and Tan (2002) report that traditional-aged students have more supportive individuals available in their lives than do adult students. Nontraditional students have little or no time to make connections on a college campus. One caring person who answers questions and offers advice may be viewed as a life preserver in a sea of stress and confusion; however, it may be difficult for older adults to find a suitable mentor.

Learners construct their experience in the context of particular social settings, cultural values, and economic and political circumstances. As well as being the foundation for learning, experience also distorts, constrains and limits. One example of the limiting power of experience was manifested through the LAST students' negative attitude to aspects of the course in terms of content and process. The former was said to be too abstract and the latter too formal and didactic. The issue here, therefore, was one of disposition towards the course. ( Bamber & Tett, 2000)

Institutional Barriers

When asked about the lack of student support services available to nontraditional students at UW-Stout, a representative from the Admissions Office described a fundamental institutional barrier: "Schools are not structured to accommodate adult students." (Personal communication) Institutional barriers are systematic barriers that exclude adults or make it difficult for them to successfully navigate through their higher education (Kilgore & Rice, 2003). For example, office and class hours that do not meet the needs of students who work and/or care for family members. Adult students may show up for evening and weekend classes and find darkened building whose only lighting is the classroom for the course. The business, financial aid, academic advising, and other student support offices have been closed since five o'clock. This example illustrates a lack of not only understanding about the needs of adult learners but also awareness of the students themselves. Even the way assignments are given in classes might be considered an institutional barrier and unusually stressful for nontraditional students; for example, group work. Using small groups in student cooperative learning enterprises has become a major trend in American higher education (Cheng & Warren, 2000).

Despite this increase in frequency, a pilot-study conducted at University of Wisconsin-Stout revealed a litany of complaints by students about group projects (Droege, 2006). In fact, the term "grouphate" has been coined to indicate the negative attitude that many students have about group work (King & Behnke, 2004). This attitude stems from the feeling that group work implies a loss of individual control resulting, in part, from the need to spend time tutoring less competent group members. In most cases, the only way to combat this lack of control is to assume full responsibility for completing the assignment on your own. Ultimately, whether you choose to take control of the group or the leadership role is thrust upon you, there is an added degree of stress that is absent from the other members of the group (Droege).

On the plus side, research also confirms a number of benefits to group work. Among others, those benefits that have been identified in the literature include the following: students learn teamwork skills, improve their critical thinking skills, gain more insight about a particular topic, and further develop their social skills. Studies show that employers want college graduates to have developed teamwork skills, and advocates of collaborative learning suggest that this educational strategy affords students a first-hand experience to gain these skills (Payne, Monk-Turner, Smith, & Sumter, 2000). Furthermore, it is believed that group projects "can effectively serve as a bridge between the academic community and the business world" (Page & Donelan, 2003). Ideally, working with their peers as part of a group, students will learn decision making skills and how to communicate more effectively with one another.

These findings have important practical implications. As suggested by Zepke and Leach (2005), the crucial importance of building relationships also requires the institutional culture to adapt. It is important that the teaching staff help the non-traditional students understand the value of proactive behavior in their university life, through specific tutorial initiatives. Multi-role students who have little time for university activities may sometimes find it difficult to identify the best behaviors to achieve academic success. If setting aside time for oneself has proven to be one of the most frequently cited difficulties among the interviewees, helping these students to recognize the value of investing in social relationships in the community could be an important objective for the university.

Research exploring the reasons for student withdrawal tends to conclude that there is rarely a single reason why students leave. In most cases, the picture is complex, and students leave as a result of a combination of inter-related factors. The most comprehensive national survey of students withdrawing from university was conducted by Yorke in the mid-1990s (n = 2151) (Yorke et al 1997). It identified the five most significant reasons for student non-completion: incompatibility between the student and institution, lack of preparation for the higher education experience, lack of commitment to the course, financial hardship and poor academic progress. Yorke and Longden's more recent survey (2008) identified the following seven factors as contributing to early withdrawal: poor quality learning experience; not coping with academic demand; wrong choice of field of study; unhappy with location and environment; dissatisfied with institutional resourcing; problems with finance and employment; and problems with social integration. Davies and Elias (2002) obtained similar findings (with a sample of over 1 500 students). In their survey, the main factors for leaving were: a mistaken choice of course (24%),

financial problems directly related to participating in higher education (18%), and personal problems (14%). More recently, the National Audit Office (NAO) (2007) identified seven types of reasons why students withdraw: personal reasons, lack of integration, dissatisfaction with course/institution, lack of preparedness, wrong choice of course, financial reasons and in order to pursue other opportunities. In summary, the reasons for early withdrawal are.

Levels of Support

Connecting Classroom

Student support includes academic support, skills development, pastoral support, financial information, advice and support. Support may be delivered by dedicated, professional staff (e.g. student services), by academic staff (e.g. personal tutor), by peers (e.g. via mentoring schemes) or via the students' union. There are different models of providing both academic and pastoral support: separate, semi-integrated and integrated curriculum models (Warren 2002, Earwaker 1993). Integrated approaches are favoured, as research shows that many students who would benefit from academic and other support services are reluctant to put themselves forward (Dodgson and Bolam, 2002). Personal tutoring is central to establishing a relationship between students and the institution, and providing a first point of contact (Dodgson and Bolam 2002, Yorke and Thomas 2003, Thomas and Hixenbaugh 2006).

Teacher Support

Work on personal tutoring has drawn on institutional research and evaluation of practice (Thomas and

Hixenbaugh 2006). These studies are remarkably consistent in finding that:

· tutoring enhances many students' learning experience and improves retention, progression and


· traditional models of tutoring are no longer appropriate or fit for purpose

· new models of tutoring should be student-centred, integrated into the curriculum, connected to

professional services and proactively engage students, especially as they make the transition into


· staff need to be involved in the development of new tutoring systems, and provided with

guidance, training and support to enable them to fulfil their new roles, in a wider range of

contexts and modes of delivery.

Other research on academic study support also identifies the value of integrated or semi-integrated

approaches (see below).

Curriculum development is at the heart of what institutions can do to improve student retention and success.

For many students, their academic interactions are the only way in which they interact with the

institution, so that learning, teaching, assessment and course content become central to students'

experience and their decision to stay or leave early.

In particular, research evidence points to the importance of:

i) Active learning and teaching strategies

ii) Formative assessment

iii) Relevant courses

iv) Integrated personal tutoring and study support

v) Flexible learning

i) Active learning and teaching strategies

Many efforts to improve student retention and success via learning, teaching and assessment

approaches focus on promoting greater student engagement in the classroom. This is primarily being undertaken by moving from largely teacher-centred approaches towards student-centred learning practices. There is a consensus that interactive as opposed to didactic teaching improves academic success and promotes the inclusion of learners who might feel like outsiders (Bamber and Tett, 2001; Haggis and Pouget, 2002; Thomas, 2002; Parker et al, 2005). Student-centred learning conceives of students as playing a more active role in their learning processes, and drawing on their existing knowledge, previous experiences and personal interests to enhance engagement, course commitment and retention on the programme.

De Corte (2000) (in the context of Belgian schooling) identified the

following features of a "powerful learning environment". It should:

· include group discussions of both the content and the process of learning and studying

· provide authentic tasks and realistic problems that have personal meaning and future use

· initiate and support active and constructive learning processes (conceptual understanding) and

· enhance students' awareness of their own cognitive processes and their ability to control their

motives and feelings (cognitive and volitional self-regulation).

Active learning is often associated with experiential, problem-based and project-based learning, and other forms of collaborative learning, and less reliance on the large lecture format. Boud and Feletti (1998, p2) identify the key features of a problem-based learning approach as:

· using stimulus material to help students discuss an important problem, question or issue

· presenting the problem as a simulation of professional practice or a real-life situation

· appropriately guiding students' critical thinking and providing limited resources to help them

learn from defining and attempting to resolve a given problem

· having students work co-operatively as a group, exploring information in and out of class, with

access to a tutor who knows the problem well and can facilitate the group's learning process

· getting students to identify their own learning needs and appropriate use of available resources

· reapplying this knowledge to the original problem and evaluating their learning processes.

Vincent Tinto has promoted the idea of learning communities as a way of facilitating student

engagement - both academically and socially. For example, "by registering students for the same course

or having all new students study the same topic, the entering students form their own self-supporting

associations to give each other academic and social support " (Tinto, 2000, p28-9).

In Tinto's work, students found that learning communities had academic and social benefits that

impacted positively on student achievement and persistence (Tinto 1998, Tinto 2000).

Formative feedback is integrated into the learning experience, and so does not detract from discipline-focused teaching, and it also reaches all students, not just those who have the knowledge and confidence to seek support. Furthermore feedback on formative assessment provides a vehicle for interaction between students and staff, thus helping to develop student familiarity and confidence to approach staff for additional clarification and guidance if necessary. Feedback information can also be used by staff to realign their teaching in response to learners' needs (see Russell 2008).

Life-World Environment


Nontraditional students need opportunities to interact with faculty, staff and peers regularly. One of the participants in this study felt that faculty and staff should make themselves more available to students who may have questions or need extra help with assignments. The participant recalled a time when she could not locate any faculty or staff members to answer her question. The experience was incredibly frustrating as the student walked from office to office in search of answers. Departmental faculty and staff should participate in the monthly student forums to answer questions that students may have. Monthly student forums also provide an opportunity for peer interaction among students.

Family has been identified as the primary source of support for nontraditional female students. To emulate this type of support, teacher education programs can attempt to create a family atmosphere within the program. A family atmosphere has to be created in every class to build a sense of community among students. The thought of completing two years of coursework individually or as a cohort may be overwhelming for some students. Students have to complete courses one at a time and may need the support of others to do so. Communities are the contexts in which people connect with each other. When nontraditional students feel connected to a place, they tend to invest in their learning (Larrotta, 2009).

Social Engagement

Harvey and Drew (2006) found that, although social integration is thought to be crucial to student retention and success, it is given comparatively little attention within institutions - for example the forming of friendships and the impact of the locality and its social (non-university) facilities are not considered. In the US context, Tinto has established learning communities that study together and these have promoted social, as well as academic, integration. Thomas et al. (2002) found that student services can play a role in promoting social interaction by "helping students to locate each other (e.g. mature students, international students etc), by providing social spaces, by offering more flexible and affordable Accommodation options and by compensating for the informal support usually provided by networks of friends". Yorke and Longden (2008) also note the importance of accommodation and living arrangements.

Theoretical Framework on Non-Traditional Students' Retention

This study incorporates two conceptual models (Cross, 1981; Donaldson & Graham, 1999) in order to develop a theoretical framework that will examine how nontraditional female students complete their journey towards their college degree. More specifically, this study is concerned with identifying the barriers experienced by these students and in understanding how differing levels of support was helpful in overcoming such barriers.

Cross (1981) categorized barriers to participation in adult learning into three areas: institutional, situational, and dispositional. Cross' categorization of barriers is one of three works used to form a theoretical framework for the present study.

1. Situational--those that arise from one's situation or environment at a given point;

2. Institutional--those practices and procedures that exclude or discourage adults from participating in organized learning activities; and

3. Dispositional--those related to the attitudes and self-perceptions about one-self as a learner

Within the international literature on student retention in higher education, a paradigmatic theoretical framework (Braxton & Hirschy, 2004) is Tinto's Interactionalist Theory. This theory, in its various revisions (1975, 1988, 1993), identifies the main predictive factor as the level of integration reached by the student in the social and institutional context of academia. In relation to the synthesis proposed by Braxton, Milem, and Sullivan (2000), much empirical evidence currently particularly supports the hypothesis that the degree of the student's social integration in the campus community influences the level of commitment during the academic journey

and thus the likelihood of successfully completing that journey.

However, this model was developed mostly in relation to traditional students and to residential academic contexts, and doubts have been expressed about the validity of generalizing its constructs to explain attrition among non-traditional students (Bean & Metzner, 1985; Cabrera, Nora & Castaneda, 1993; Donaldson, Graham, Kasworm, & Dirkx, 1999; Sandler, 2000; Taniguchi & Kaufman, 2005).

Donaldson and Graham's (1999) model of college outcomes for adults proposed a framework to examine and assess the key elements affecting the learning of undergraduate nontraditional students. The model takes into consideration the adult's preexisting conditions and motives, cognition, classroom engagement, influences of reallife experience, and the outcomes that they observe and experience as a result of college experiences (Donaldson, Graham, Kasworm, & Dirkx, 1999). The model "draws on the work of Kasworm (1995) who investigated adults' experiences and outcomes from undergraduate education". The model examines the relationships among six major elements related to adults' undergraduate collegiate experiences: (a) Prior Experience & Personal Biographies, (b) Psychosocial and Value Orientations, (c) Adult's Cognition, (d) the Connecting Classroom, (e) the Life-World Environment, and (f) the Outcomes.

The Connecting Classroom is the central avenue for social engagement and for negotiating meaning for learning. Adults use the classroom to define the separation between academic and life-world knowledge structures (schemata). They use academic knowledge structures to illuminate and elaborate existing life-world structures and transform both real-world and academic knowledge structures into new, integrative structures and meaning. For nontraditional students, the classroom defines the college experience (Kasworm, 1997). The classroom serves as the pivotal hinge with adults utilizing their various roles in life such as student, worker, citizen, and family member to make meaning of their college experience (Kasworm, 1997; Donaldson & Graham, 1999).

The Life-World Environment encompasses current work, family, and community situations and settings or the different roles and contexts in which adults work and live. Adults have out-of-class social settings that support their entrance or return to higher education; individuals in these settings include family members, coworkers, supervisors, and community members. These levels of support can detract from or enhance the elements of the psychosocial and value orientations component when adults engage in collegiate experiences (Donaldson & Graham, 1999).